- Tom Aikens and Toms Kitchen restaurant ChelseaChef co-owner
For as long as I can remember – probably the age of 8 or so – my twin brother and I were helping out in the kitchen with my mother. She would involve us in making cakes and home baking, I have a very real memory of her making milk bread and I sometimes think that it was just a dream as the smell was incredible. We had a very good home garden where we grew our own fruit and vegetables; we had strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries and so on. So there would be a lot of toing and froing from the garden to the kitchen, I loved digging the garden for fresh vegetables and seeing things grow and come to life was beautiful.
My father and grandfather were both in the wine business; in the late 70s, early 80s my grandfather ran the wine side to Coleman’s of Norwich (wine merchants, not only famous for mustard). In around 82/83 that closed down and my father started a wine shop and also a importing and exporting wine business, not only with French wines but new world as well. He was very successful and I would say a true pioneer of his time, as he got the new world market of wine wrapped up on his own. This meant that from the age around 12, I started spending a lot of my time on holidays in France, travelling with my father (when he met new suppliers or wholesalers).
There were some days when he would drop us (me and my brother) off with a supplier while he would spend lunch with them doing business. We ended up working some days with the suppliers – in the vineyards, sweeping out the cellars, sometimes having lunch. So from an early age my exposure to food and wine was quite significant.
On one particular trip my father booked us into a Michelin Two Star restaurant/Hotel, by complete accident. He only realised the magnitude of what he had booked when we arrived at the hotel to find our car surrounded by four guys wearing white gloves and bow ties, as my father was never one for looking in a guidebook it was all one by word of mouth or a Frenchmen telling him to try this place out.
That evening we had the most amazing meal and it is one of those inspirational gastronomic moments that I will never forget. It was still the era of nouvelle cuisine so tiny portions and lots of courses. The tastes and flavours were stunning. I had the most beautiful tomato salad with simple olive oil, basil, finely diced shallots, course sea salt, pepper and chives: A fillet steak melted in my mouth – a tall tower of beef fillet that had been larded with beef fat , it was sublime and perfection in one, the waiters lifting endless cloche for my parents with course after course, we also had the best chips ever, an accompanying stacked tower of perfectly cooked and cut potato. The tastes were sensational, I was in heaven and as I say I’ll never forget it.
I could never imagine myself sitting behind a desk and doing the kind of job my father did although it was amazing and looking back this was probably the starting point in my thinking that being a chef was a career choice.
In 1986 my brother and I joined catering college in Norwich and after a while – when they saw how well we were doing - our parents were very supportive.
After college I went straight to London. I sent my (small) CV to about 30 different hotels and restaurants and every one came back with the same answer – sorry not enough experience, try again in three years time! Back then you had the likes of Koffman, The Roux Brothers, Nico, the start of Marco Pierre White. And that was really it – these places had something like a 2-3 year waiting list for you to get in… (wish it was like that now, smiling).
In those days, you really appreciated your place in top restaurants because you realised you were amongst a select few that had been chosen to go and work there, so you felt incredibly lucky that you had been given this chance to prove your worth. So regardless of the hours, regardless of the pay and to an extent regardless of how you were treated you respected your employer and were glad of your job.
David Cavalier at Cavalier’s restaurant in Battersea was the first position I found but only by approaching David and offering to work for free for six months. After that he gave me a paid job, but I realised that I had been treated with kid gloves compared to a full time employee, as it was then long hours working from 6.30-7am to around mid-night. I was on the veg section the lowest of the low, but the excitement was staggering, I knew the work was hard but not this hard.
It’s quite funny looking back at it; if we did 14 covers for lunch then we were completely in trouble – we could handle 2, 3, 5 as many as 10 for lunch and in the evening we would hope to cope with 20 covers rising to an absolute maximum of 30 at weekend evenings. Why? The kitchen and ‘brigade’ was so small and some of the equipment had seen better days, but the food that was produced was amazing.
After going into paid employment as a commis, I found it really really tough. At the time my brother was working for an outside caterer of Le Gavroche (for Kleinwort Benson) while he waited for a place at Le Gavroche itself. His hours were more sociable and while we were sharing a flat he would be out partying and I would be getting home in the early hours completely shattered.
So, at the age of 20, I was feeling quite envious of this social life and along with the kitchen environment being so tough, woke up one day and decided I wasn’t going back. Literally 4 days later, David’s wife Sue knocked at my door and said that David wanted to see me. It turned out to be an inspirational pep talk – he told me he saw a real talent in me; that I was dedicated, passionate and hard working and could really go somewhere in the industry, but the underline words that he said stuck, you will have to take some shit and work your ass off, but it will pay off. So I went back and stayed in his kitchen for the next year.
After that I went and worked for Pierre Koffman – Pierre was and is an exceptional man and I really adored working for him – it was so exhilarating and exciting, there was this buzz of excitement in his kitchen. He was very much a no nonsense kind of man; you were told what to do and got on with it…quietly. In fact I remember I didn’t share a word with anyone in the kitchen for the first three months – even the guy on my section, he would do his job and I would do mine, the majority of the kitchen was French and they made it pretty clear that they disliked the English chefs working on their turf.
After three or four months, I was moved from the larder to the fish section. To begin with it was a scary experience, I was twenty-one years old and hadn’t touched a piece of fish since I was at college – hadn’t prepped, gutted, filleted nothing. I had literally six weeks with a guy working with me then I was expected to fly. So I had a little chat with Pierre, saying “chef, I’m really a little concerned because I haven’t done any fish prep since I was at college” He reassured me but as it happened I realised that you learn very quickly. Eventually my speed built up and I could completely prep a wild salmon from start to finish in 7 minutes. But his meaner and temperament was classic one minute he would be laughing and joking then the next giving you a huge amount of grief.
The other chefs where not impressed that Pierre use to have a soft spot for the English and he use to purposefully play them against us and see the antagonising between the two camps. One day I was very late and over slept and on my way in Pierre passed me in his car whilst I was cycling to work he smiled and waved. Then when I got into work he had a croissant for me and a coffee waiting for me and would make me sit down with him to eat this, so funny.
With him I really learned speed of service, prep and classical French cooking. When winter came around (and the third star came for the restaurant) I was moved onto the meat section. It was a massive menu there – 8 meat main courses and 4 fish courses in winter – on top of that you’d have seasonal game, anything from partridge to teal to grouse to hare to mallard to woodcock, you name it Pierre would have it on the menu! So you had to be damn quick, the buzz I got from this was just awesome, he knew how to play the team and to get the best out of all of us.
When I left Tante Claire I was quite sad because it was such a great experience, twenty years on I still have my recipe folder from those days and look back on them with great fondness and nostalgia…but I was determined to move on again and after 16 months it was time to move to learn more .
So the next restaurant I went to was The Capital with Philip Britten. I had just nine months there and learned a lot from Philip – it was a tiny kitchen – but I had already organised my next job when I joined The Capital
I went to see Pierre now and again to say hi as I just loved that place an seeing him in the kitchen was brilliant, so one day I went to say hi and when I was with him he used to sometimes feed his suppliers now and again when they would go and see him in the kitchen at La Tante Claire, pretty much something off the lunch menu. One day when I went to visit him, he said why don’t you stay for lunch. I thought that I might be offered something in the kitchen off the lunch menu but instead he insisted that I go into the main restaurant and that he would cook something especially for me. In those days jacket, shirt and tie were required but I was wearing jeans, t-shirt and trainers - Jean-Claude the restaurant manager was so professional, he made me feel at ease. Anyway Pierre gave me a 8 course tasting menu of fabulous food, all with wines, I was getting all these looks from other customers it was hilarious and amazing and from that moment we’ve been good friends and kept in touch.
Then I went to work with Richard Neat at Pied a Terre he was 28 or so years old. I remember first thing in the morning you would hear the bang bang bang of him chopping the chicken wings for his chicken jus. The kitchen was old and battered and it had a really hard atmosphere about the place. There were only four of us sometimes five in the kitchen to cook for a small amount of covers. He was extremely imaginative and creative in his cooking talent but at the same time you would feel the wrath of Richard. It was well known that it was the hardest kitchen to work for in London, the turnover in staff was excruciating. He was never one to greet you with a smiling happy face and it was normally a look of what the hell are you doing here.
I remember Richard would go over the lunch menu at 10.30am and there was no time to get second deliveries of vegetables; so we would be always in the shit, i would be running down to the local market to get last minute extra vegetables. It was six days a week, short breaks between services and Sundays off – that was it.
After Pied a Terre I went to France to work for Joel Robuchon. Again a phenomenal place to work – the guy was and is a genius. The kitchen was dream like, really exceptional, beautiful . To have what he had at his age was just amazing – 30 chefs in the kitchen, 30 front of house for a 65 cover restaurant. I went there, at the age of 24, to be a chef de partie in arguably the best restaurant in the world I was in heaven
The other French chefs were so friendly and welcoming. The way that Robuchon ran the service was just mind boggling: Each section had between 2 and 6 chefs and no-one was allowed to talk, a completely quiet silent kitchen. When the check came in Robuchon read out the check and you had one chance and one chance only to concentrate, get it right, get it done. If you messed up or missed the order you were out there and then. We would have to write on tin foil stuck to the wall, the orders as they came in, how the meat was cooked, what it was the table number ect ect. You could not ask , look or speak to Robucheon in the service, so you had to concentrate like anything. I lived near the Gare de Nord so a good 45 minutes from work, I would have to get up at 4.40am and I would then be at the trocadero near avenue poincaret by 5.30am, time for a quick triple espresso and a croissant then into the kitchen by 5.50am. You would work from 6.00am to 1am, then I was in bed by 1.45-2am, by Wednesday you were out of it – by there the end of the week the guys in there were dropping. No amount of Neurofen could take away the fatigue headaches that started by Thursday (smiling).
I remember once cooking Boeuf Hache for all the staff as all sections had to take it in turns. I thought being French they would want them medium rare – “bloody Englishman doesn’t know what he’s doing” – they literally wanted them shown to the frying pan on each side – still fridge cold in the middle. Warm tartare style from then on (smiling), so I got a massive bollocking for that and Robucheon thought it was highly amausing that the English chef had cooked their beef well done. The amazing produce, everything was fresh every day, the truffles, cepes wild strawberries, fresh almonds, peaches food quality that was inspirational . Also with Robucheon was the amount of cleaning we did it was intense, every service the ovens, stoves stripped clean, the brass all polished, the stove tops scubbed with green scourers and finished with sandpaper so they glistened like stainless steal. The real joke was that at the beginning of the week we where given ½ a green scourer a small bottle of bleach and that was that. We all bought our own cleaning supplies how mad was that. I use to buy washing liquid, soap, scourers, jay cloths, gloves and sandpaper for the stoves, but oh boy was it magic. Real old school, proper army training that was a bygone era that we will never see again, I have a joke about this with my chefs and they think I am mad, I call it when boys where men !!
I then went and worked in Reims for Gerard Boyer. This was like chalk and cheese compared to Robuchon; you had one morning team and one evening team and you did 10 hours a day absolute maximum, this was another 3 star and an awesome place in beautiful Reims.
When I was 26 I got the call from David (Moore) about going back to be a co-owner and head chef of Pied a Terre. It was a very big decision to make and I thought long and hard about it.
I remembered how when at college a teacher who took a dislike to me, told me that I wasn’t good enough and would never make anything of myself – in fact he said I had only been accepted to the college (after a very bad interview) because of my twin brother and that they didn’t want to split us up. From that moment I had it in my mind to make it by the age of 26, as if I had not I would be a failure and that was the moment that I said I will be some one I will be successful. So it was a momentus coincidence and I had to grasp the opportunity to be a head chef at the age of 26, but would I have been offered this chance any where else, no so I took it with both hands and thought why not.
It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, nobody knew me who I was, what was I, what did I stand for, but the worst thing was that I just could not get any staff at all. I went back to London and worked with Richard for two weeks then Richard left and his brigade with him. Why would any one want to come and work for me any way I had no following, no reputation, so why would anyone want to come and work for me, as they thought I would lose at least a star if not both. There were three of us in the kitchen for 6 months and it was mental, working 20 hours a day and 6 days a week. I had my own repertoire but it takes a good ten years to find your own true signature and style. For example, since opening here, my food has significantly evolved and progressed. Like the maturation of anything – like cheese or fine wine – your cooking develops and evolves with age.
But when I got the second star at Pied a Terre a weight lifted off me because I realised what it meant to hold such an accolade and have the associated reputation as a chef. It was very hard to cope with the pressure at that age – and that status at that age –it was barmy, nuts, we were ecstatic. I stayed there for five years then I decided to have a break.
The following two years were spent working in the private sector, for both Lord Lloyd Webber, and the Bamford family, where i helped Lady Bamford develop a range of organic products for Daylesford Farm Organic Shop and Wootton Organic, which I helped to set up at the very beginning which was an awesome experience. I also worked in the abattoir for a while which was def not for the squeamish.
Then, in April 2003, we opened Tom Aikens Restaurant in Chelsea. We earned numerous prestigious critical accolades, including a Michelin star in 2004 (and a ‘rising two-star’ status in January 2008).
We then opened Toms Kitchen in October 2006 which is an all day restaurant serving breakfast Lunch and Dinner and opened 7 days a week, it serves the best cooked breakfast in London and another Toms Kitchen opened in Somerset house in August 2010.
Over the last few years, I have collaborated with David Linley on a collection of exclusive high-end kitchen accessories including boards and knives in walnut and stainless steel.
My other passions are working with many conservation groups WWF, Greenpeace, MSC, MCS promoting sustainability. Tom also works closely with various charities including, Kiss It Better for the Great Ormand Street Hospital Children’s Campaign, Kipungani Schools Trust, Royal Marsden Cancer Campaign, EJF. The Evelina Children’s Hospital at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation trust, Mothers 4 Children and has just started working with School food matters. His other great passion is cycling, entering such race’s as the Marmotte, Luc Alphand and this year the Etape de Tour up Mount Ventoux and has ran the Marathon des Sables in 2010 which is 6 marathons running across the Sahara desert in 5 days raising money for facing Africa. Tom is also part of the Team 2012 Ambassador programme for the BOA helping to raise funds for Team GB.
- Norwich city collegecity and guilds 706/1 and 706/2, 1986 - 1988